When Ireland emerged from the Bosnian fog with a hard-fought 1-1 draw last Friday night, many supporters felt positive and excited looking towards the return leg in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Ireland’s home turf in Ballsbridge has become a fortress of sorts with the team going undefeated on home soil throughout the entire campaign.
The campaign has been a memorable one for several reasons, not just because the Republic have qualified for their 6th major tournament. Martin O’Neill’s side recorded 4 points against world champions, Germany.
This, as we all know, included a famous 1-0 victory at home in October, which up until last night, created the greatest atmosphere at Landsdowne Road since the stadium’s reconstruction.
Last night’s play-off demanded a hero, and on this occasion the starting XI didn’t disappoint. Step forward Jonny Walters, who registered a brace to seal Ireland’s qualification and book their ticket on the plane to France next summer.
A questionable decision by the referee, Björn Kuipers, led to the Irish being awarded a penalty mid-way through the first half. Slick, intricate play down Ireland’s right side and a delicate flick from Hoolahan put the Bosnians in all sorts of trouble before a Murphy cross struck the hand of the Bosnian centre-half, Zukanovic.
A cool-headed Walters made no mistake as he stood before the Irish singing section and sent former teammate, Asmir Begovic, the wrong way as he slotted his spot-kick precisely into the bottom corner.
After the half-time break, Ireland immediately retreated to their own 18 and invited pressure from the Bosnian’s front four. As the clock showed 42 minutes of play remained, the general consensus of Irish fans was, “here we go”, and many feared an equaliser was on the horizon.
The Irish stayed strong at the back and their defensive solidarity was, on several occasions, the platform for a counter attack. One such counter down the left side led to an Irish free-kick in a dangerous position on the flank.
Robbie Brady sent a whipped cross into Bosnia’s “corridor of uncertainty” causing brief panic behind the Bosnian line before Stoke striker, Jonny Walters, bagged his second of the night and gave O’Neill’s men the breathing space they desperately needed going into the final ten minutes.
As Ireland clung on to their two goal advantage, the back four were all hands on deck to ensure that they would be the side to prevail victorious from this tense play-off fixture. The introduction of John O’Shea towards the end reinforced the team’s solidarity and saw them through to the final whistle.
Ireland are going to EURO 2016 next summer in France.
Amongst the deserved celebrations, there are new questions to be asked of our national side. Most importantly, what are Ireland’s chances at the championships and what can we expect?
With the draw for the group stage taking place on December 12th, it is difficult to make solid predictions, however, one can only imagine that the Republic are a hungry side and have a great desire to redeem what was a lacklustre performance at the Euros in 2012.